AL East Hot Stove preview (cont.)
Cherington will also have to pay, in cash or in talent, to upgrade the rotation, especially now that John Lackey will (thankfully?) miss 2012 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Assuming they can scrub the chicken grease from their pitching hands -- sorry, couldn't resist -- Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz should bounce back from disappointing 2011 seasons. Josh Beckett, the alleged ringleader of the in-game clubhouse partying, was a Cy Young contender in the first half and a shadow of an ace in the second; the $47 million he's owed over the next three seasons makes it unlikely that Cherington will be able to trade him. In theory that trio could rank with any rotation top-three in the game, but Cherington will look for reinforcements outside of the organization. He'll keep tabs on C.J. Wilson, if only to drive up the price if the Yankees are chasing the lefthander, and could try to lure Roy Oswalt or Mark Buerhle as cheaper (in dollars and years) alternatives.
If the new GM really feels like shaking things up he could dangle Kevin Youkilis in the trade market. Youk is beloved in Boston, and his physical breakdowns the last two seasons might be a turn-off to other teams. But his bat and corner-infield versatility could also be enough to bring a decent third or fourth starter back in a deal. Ditto for outfield prospects Josh Reddick and Ryan Kalish and infielder Jed Lowrie. None are potential stars, but they all could be attractive players in the right trade package.
The Red Sox could afford to lose Youkilis's lineup presence; he played only 120 games this year and the team still led the majors in runs scored. A bat they might be forced to keep is that of David Ortiz, another free agent who presents a tough call for Cherington. The DH had a renaissance season in 2011, reaching his highest OBP, slugging and OPS levels since '07. Cherington no doubt cringes at the thought of giving a one-dimension player who's about to turn 36 a three-year deal, but the fact is that few players available could replace Ortiz's production. The Red Sox may have no choice but to bring Big Papi back.
Assuming Ortiz returns, and with MVP candidates Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez on board through at least 2013, there's no reason to believe the Red Sox won't again have one of the game's most potent lineups in 2012. Despite the sturm und drang of the season's last six weeks, Cherington isn't inheriting a massive rebuilding job; on paper, he's walking into a far better situation than his former boss Epstein is with the Cubs. Once he hires a manager, his biggest worry, aside from finding pitching help for next year and an everyday rightfielder, will be restocking the farm system, which was thinned by Epstein's trade with San Diego for Gonzalez last year. Boston fans may not feel this way now, but there's a good chance that in one year they're talking about champagne, not beer, being consumed in the Red Sox' clubhouse.
2011 Results: 81-81, fourth place in AL East
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 743/761
Pythagorean Record: 79-83
Pending Free Agents: SP Shawn Camp, RP Frank Francisco, 2B Kelly Johnson, C Jose Molina, RP Jon Rauch
Prospects on the Verge: 3B Brett Lawrie, SP Henderson Alvarez
Building For: An expanded playoff system
Strengths: Front office smarts; young starters with loads of potential; Jose Bautista; rich farm system
Biggest Holes: Top-of-rotation starter; closer
Targets: SP Mark Buehrle, SP Yu Darvish, RP Jonathan Broxton
The Plan: Few teams are anticipating the arrival of an expanded playoff system like the Blue Jays, who would be considered contenders under the current format if they played anywhere but the big, bad AL East. In 2011 the Jays played .522 baseball against opponents not based in Boston, Tampa Bay or the Bronx; alas, they were five games under .500 against those division heavyweights. Toronto is already among the majors' elite teams in several areas: Alex Anthopoulos is one of the game's shrewdest general managers; the lineup is anchored by Jose Bautista, the league's best hitter; the farm system, invigorated by Anthopoulos' aggressive drafting, is one of the most highly-rated in the majors. To have a shot at their first postseason appearance since 1993 the Blue Jays need help at the front of the rotation and at second base.
Exactly how the Jays will fill those holes is anybody's guess -- Anthopoulos has shown an impressive knack for pulling off trades that no one saw coming and seem to tilt strongly in his favor (goodbye Vernon Wells; hello Colby Rasmus). But expect the GM to be a player in the free agent market, even if he's not running with the highest rollers. President Paul Beeston has said Toronto is very unlikely to hand out six- or seven-year contracts, which probably rules out any trips north of the border by Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder or C.J. Wilson.
But Beeston is already on record as having said this year that Toronto, which spent $70.6 million on players this season, is in a position to be a $140-$150 million payroll team in the near future. The Jays will likely be interested in Yu Darvish, the highly-touted Japanese righthander who will set off a Matsuzaka-like bidding war if he decides to make himself available to U.S. teams. Ditto for Mark Buehrle, the longtime White Sox lefty who could be had for less than Wilson. Anthopoulos is also likely to re-sign second baseman Kelly Johnson, the free-agent second baseman he acquired from Arizona in August. Johnson's potent bat will make him a popular target, but the Jays may be willing to pay a premium to keep him even though Anthopoulos could get two of the draft picks he craves by letting the Type-A free agent walk.
Assuming Johnson returns, the Jays' everyday lineup is essentially settled -- and, if you're an AL East pitcher, potentially scary. Toronto is expecting big things from the 21-year-old Lawrie (nine home runs, .953 OPS in 171 plate appearances) in his first full season, and if Rasmus can find his stroke again the 3-4-5 combo of Bautista, Rasmus and Lawrie could be one of the AL's best. With Adam Lind coming off his second straight sub-.300 OBP season, expect Anthopoulos to explore economical first base upgrades on the trade market. He'll do the same in his search for bullpen help: With Francisco and Rauch unlikely to return the closer's job is wide open, and the 'pen is also short on lefthanders after Mark Rzepczynski was sent to St. Louis in the Rasmus deal.
Even if Anthopoulos fills every hole, the Jays will still be overmatched in the AL East in 2012. But they can be competitive and give young starters Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek and Henderson Alvarez another year to mature. When the extra wild card spot arrives in 2013, Toronto will be ready to fight for it.
2011 Results: 69-93, fifth place in AL East
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 708/860
Pythagorean Record: 67-95
Pending Free Agents: DH Vladimir Guerrero, IF Cesar Izturis
Prospects on the Verge: None, though SS Manny Machado might be ready in 2013
Building For: Their first .500 season of the century, and signs that the organization has long-term direction
Strengths: Manager; power; young arms with loads of potential
Biggest Holes: General manager; rotation experience; infield defense; plate discipline and patience
Targets: 1B Prince Fielder, SP Edwin Jackson, help at second and third base
The Plan: The state of the Orioles is best summed up by their search for a general manager: They're having trouble giving the job away. Andy MacPhail stepped down after the season, a beaten man after four years of trying to rebuild the team he loved as a kid. Baltimore considered hiring Diamondbacks head of scouting and player development Jerry Dipoto, but he jumped at the Angels' vacant GM position instead. This week the O's offered the gig to Blue Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava; he said thanks but no thanks. Apparently running the Orioles would be a promotion in name only.
Whoever takes over the front office will have his work cut out for him. The Orioles haven't won 70 games since 2006, haven't been above .500 since 1997, and their farm system is one of the game's weakest. There will be no quick fixes, either: Owner Peter Angelos appears intent on keeping the payroll in the $75-$85 million range, a number that makes it virtually impossible for any team not named the Rays to compete in the AL East. The team does have catcher Matt Wieters, who finally fulfilled some of his potential both at and behind the plate this year, and centerfielder Adam Jones. And there's manager Buck Showalter in the dugout; there have been occasional stretches since he took over in 2010 when the O's have resembled a major-league-quality team. But Showalter, skilled as he is, just doesn't have enough tools to work with.
Baltimore's first offseason priority is finding rotation help. The Orioles were last in the majors in starters' ERA (5.39), starters' innings pitched (881), quality starts (60), starters' strikeout-walk ratio (1.77) and starters' pitches per inning (16.9), and last in the AL in home runs allowed by starters (134). The rotation has a few quality young arms to build around, but the promise they offered last spring disintegrated quickly. Brian Matusz (10.69 ERA) took several steps backward this year, Zach Britton was wildly inconsistent and Jake Arrieta had elbow surgery in August. The O's can't count on any of them to front the rotation next year, so they'll be searching for veteran starters who can give the young guys time to develop and ease the burden on a bullpen that was severely overworked in 2011. C.J. Wilson is probably out of their price range, but they would be wise to pursue such lower-tier, veteran free agent starters as Edwin Jackson, Mark Buerhle, Paul Maholm or Aaron Harang.
The Orioles should also give the rotation a boost by upgrading the AL's worst defense, which means improving at third base (iron-gloved Mark Reynolds shifted to first when Derrek Lee was traded in July) and at second, where Brian Roberts (98 games played total in the last two seasons) can't be counted on to stay healthy. To give the dangerously-close-to-irrelevant franchise as a whole a boost -- attendance at Camden Yards this season was 50 percent lower than it was a decade ago -- Angelos should open up his dust-covered checkbook and pay whatever it takes to bring Prince Fielder to town. Fielder's power will play well at Camden of course, and he would bring a much-needed element of patience to a lineup that walked less than any other team in the AL East. Fielder won't make the O's an instant contender, but he can bring some buzz back to Baltimore while the new GM tries to come up with a long-term plan to rebuild the franchise.
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